Influenced by the M.C. Escher-esque designs of Indian stepwells, British starchitect Thomas Heatherwick has unveiled plans for a giant stairway to nowhere in New York City’s Hudson Yards. Tentatively titled “Vessel,” the public landmark will consist of 154 intersecting flights of stairs and 80 landings zigzagging up above a plaza and garden on the far west side of Manhattan. Made of bronzed steel and concrete, the structure is slated to open in 2018.
Resembling a giant bronze ribcage — or a beehive, or a basket, depending on whom you ask — “Vessel” will weigh 600 tons and cost $150 million. It will be among the least utilitarian structures of its size in a space-starved city: its 2,500 steps don’t lead to any offices or condominiums or retail spaces. Instead, the sculptural “Vessel” will essentially function as a massive observation tower and jungle gym. While hiking the miles worth of stairs to the top, 16 stories up, visitors will get 360-degree views of the surrounding city and a free workout. A curving elevator will make the structure wheelchair accessible.
In addition to Indian stepwells, Heatherwick’s design was inspired by a beloved piece of urban detritus from his youth. “When I was a student, I fell in love with an old discarded flight of wooden stairs outside a local building site,” Heatherwick said in a statement about the design. “It caught my imagination and I loved that it was part furniture and part infrastructure. You could climb up stairs, jump on them, dance on them, get tired on them, and then plonk yourself down on them.”
Years later, when Heatherwick’s studio was commissioned by Hudson Yards developer Related Companies to create a centerpiece landmark for the site, this old discarded wooden staircase came to mind. “We wondered whether [the commission] could be built entirely from steps and landings?” Heatherwick said. “The goal became to lift people up to be more visible and to enjoy new views and perspectives of each other. … The idea is that it will act as a new free stage set for the city and form a new public gathering place for New Yorkers and visitors.”
Hudson Yard, the largest private real estate development in the history of the United States and the largest development in New York City since Rockefeller Center in 1939, already features one dramatic and towering public artwork, albeit below ground — Xenobia Bailey’s “Funktional Vibrations” in the 34th Street–Hudson Yards subway station. “Vessel” will rise up from the center of a five-acre public square and garden designed by landscape architects Nelson Byrd Woltz in collaboration with Thomas Heatherwick Studio. The green space will be filled with groves of trees, perennial gardens, woodland plants, and a 200-foot-long fountain.
Especially given its lack of commercial or residential purpose, the dramatic public art piece is bound to be met with criticism. “We know ‘Vessel’ will be debated and discussed and looked at from every angle, and Thomas,” Mayor Bill de Blasio told to the architect at the project’s unveiling on Wednesday, “if you meet 100 New Yorkers, you will find 100 different opinions on the beautiful work you’ve created. Do not be dismayed.”